Thank you to all those who prayed, questioned, encouraged, offered resources, attended, and otherwise expressed interest in last week’s interfaith event where I had been invited as one of three featured speakers on the topic of fasting as an aid to peace. In my previous article written before the event, What is Interfaith Dialogue and How to Prepare for It, I gave a brief introduction to interfaith dialogue and outlined some of my preparation.
It was a rich evening that I`m still pondering, but in this article I’d like to share four observations from my experience followed by the text of my presentation.
1. The setting was formal, complete with white table cloths, floral centrepieces, and a head table for the presenters.
In retrospect, I’m not sure why I was surprised given the occasion and the special guests who included Darryl Plecas (Member of the B.C. Legislative Assembly for Abbotsford South) and Les Barkman (Abbotsford City Councillor). In the photo below, standing at the podium is Uman Malik who opened the gathering, then seated from left to right:
- our emcee Ali Mirza (who is also an RCMP officer),
- Darryl Plecas (B.C. MLA for Abbotsford South and Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Health for Seniors, who gave an opening greeting),
- me in the middle for the Christian Perspective (and yes, that’s a big microphone in front of me, but no, we didn’t use it, as we all stood at the podium for our remarks),
- Prameya Chaitanya for the Hindu Perspective,
- Maulana Balal Khokhar for the Islam Perspective.
2. I appreciated Ali`s experience as an emcee, who was welcoming while at the same time setting appropriate boundaries for our time together.
He explained that meant each speaker should be allowed to present without interruption from any of the other speakers or from the audience. He kept each of us speakers within our 20-minute time limit, and generally walked us through the evening in a way that helped set me at ease in the unfamiliar setting.
3. I was struck by the hospitality and graciousness of our Ahmadiyya Muslim Jama’ (AMJ) hosts.
While they were fasting until after sunset (9:15pm, when dinner was to be served), they had graciously provided water and even appetizers earlier in the evening for those of us who were not fasting. When the fast was broken, the meal was a wonderful feast and provided to everyone free of charge. I and others were even encouraged to take food home with us at the end of the evening.
4. While it was an honour to speak on the topic of fasting and peace, for me the overall tone of the evening and the informal interactions were even more significant.
In my opening remarks, I said, “May our time together be an example of mutual respect and peace in our community,” and I felt that had certainly been the case throughout the formal proceedings. Then when the presentations were over and the fast was broken, I was able to join a table of AMJ members for the meal and informal conversation.
I began my presentation with the words “Peace be with you.”
Then after some opening remarks and thank yous, I continued with this introduction:
Although this kind of interfaith dialogue is new to me, and perhaps new also to some of you, it is also not-so-new in an informal way. Whenever we talk with someone who is not from our own faith—whether it’s a next door neighbour, a co-worker, a friend, or stranger—whenever we talk with someone who is not from our own faith, that is actually interfaith dialogue. The difference tonight is that we do so deliberately in a more formal way around the topic of fasting and peace.
Christian Faith and Peace
As a Christian, I am part of the Anabaptist-Mennonite Church which began in the 1500s as a new movement within the larger Christian church. Like Christians throughout history and around the world, we believe that God created the universe and everything in it.
We believe that as human beings created in the image of God, we’re meant to be at peace with God, with ourselves, with other people, and with creation. Instead, as human beings we have often chosen our own way and will, which has led to a lack of peace and a brokenness in our relationship with God, with other people, with creation, and even with ourselves.
But God the Creator did not give up on us. “In the past, God spoke through the prophets . . . in many times and many ways” (Hebrews 1:1). And finally God spoke through Jesus—who Christians believe came to save us and to show us a new way to live–in his life, in his death, and in his rising again. We believe that Jesus was God in human form, that he came to bring peace and reconciliation in all our relationships, and he is with us still even at this moment by his Spirit.
There are many different groups within Christianity that emphasize different parts of this Christian story. For Anabaptist-Mennonite Christians, Jesus is the centre of our Christian faith. Community is a vital part of our lives. And peace is at the centre of God’s work and good news.
I begin with this overview because it helps to understand the place of fasting in the Christian tradition. We believe that God created all human beings and loves us, so we don’t need to earn God’s favour by fasting, worship, prayer, or by any other spiritual practice. Instead, fasting and other spiritual practices are a response to God who already loves us. In fasting, we are not earning God’s favour, but we open ourselves to God’s continued presence, guidance, and teaching in our lives.
In Matthew 4:1-11, before Jesus began his public ministry, he was led by the Spirit into the wilderness where he spent time in fasting and prayer. This time was:
- prompted by the Holy Spirit. It was not a set time of fasting for a certain time of year.
- a time of personal significance and decision making as he was about to begin his public ministry.
- a time of spiritual reflection and struggle. He was tempted to turn stones into bread to satisfy his own hunger and to prove himself, but he refused. He was tempted to throw himself down from a high place so that God would send angels to rescue him, but again he refused. He was tempted to worship the devil and gain worldly riches and power, but for a third time, he refused.
- In this way, Jesus’ fasting was a time to clarify the purpose and direction of his coming ministry. He would not serve himself and his own needs. He would not serve the crowds by performing miracles and trying to win them over. He would serve God alone.
Besides Jesus’ example, he also taught his followers about fasting. In Matthew 6:16-18:
- Jesus seemed to assume that his followers would fast, since he said “whenever you fast.” His teaching was not directed to when they should fast. Instead Jesus focused on why they should fast and how.
- They were not to fast as a show for others. They were to fast only for God. That was why.
- As for how, they were not to go around unwashed and looking dismal. That was a common practice for fasting as a sign of mourning. But in this fast, they were to wash their faces and look presentable so that no one but God would even know that they were fasting.
Well perhaps Jesus’ followers became too good at hiding their fasting, for Matthew 9:14-15 says:
Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “The wedding guests cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.
Today, it is as Jesus predicted—he is no longer physically with us, and as his followers, many Christians do practice fasting.
Different groups within Christianity practice fasting in different ways. For some it is important to fast at a set time of year. The six weeks before Easter is a common time for fasting as we remember Jesus’ suffering and death before his glorious resurrection. For others, fasting is more personal and may be prompted by a serious decision that needs to be made. For example, the early church practiced fasting and praying together as part of discerning and calling workers and leaders.
In my part of the Christian church, we also recognize that fasting is not only about abstaining from eating and drinking. For us, there are other kinds of fasting too. So every week, for 24 hours, I go on a social media fast where I do not use Facebook or Twitter or other kinds of social media. One year for the six weeks before Easter, I fasted from listening to the radio in my car. That may sound trivial and of little significance, but for me it was a kind of fast.
Normally I get into my car, put on my seatbelt, turn the ignition, and turn on the radio almost all in one motion. For me it was automatic, something I did almost without thinking–and that was the problem. So I fasted from the radio in my car for six weeks. At first, I automatically turned on the radio, then had to turn it off again. But gradually I broke my automatic habit. I became more focused on the road and on my surroundings. I got used to the silence as I drove. I began to think more, to pray more, and it became a new way of creating space in my life that helped me listen to God. Not listening to my radio was a small sacrifice, but it did remind me of God’s far greater sacrifice in sending Jesus.
It made me realize that Jesus can be the best company whenever I am lonely, that I can turn to God not just when I’m stuck in traffic, but whenever I feel stuck in my life. If I had done my usual thing and filled that time with the sound of my radio, I might have missed that deepening sense of God’s presence. (Sacred Pauses, page 120)
A True Fast of Justice, Mercy, Kindness, and Humility
In his teaching, Jesus also told this story about fasting (Luke 18:10-14):
Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.
Fasting twice a week is a good discipline, but in this story, humility before God is even more important.
The prophet Isaiah puts it this way (Isaiah 58:4-7):
Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high.
Is such the fast that I choose,
a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
According to the prophet Isaiah, fasting is not simply abstaining from food or drink or anything else. A true fast must also include justice, mercy, kindness, and humility.
In summary then, in the Christian faith, how is fasting an aid to peace?
Fasting is an aid to peace with God–as we open ourselves to a more intimate sense of God’s presence, as we set a limit on fulfilling our own desires and seek God’s will. It makes more room for God in our lives, and more room for prayer. Not because we need to earn God’s favour, but as a response to God’s love for us.
Fasting is an aid to peace with creation as it helps us limit our consumption of limited resources. When I turn off my car radio, I turn off advertising for consumer goods I don’t need. When we fast from eating and drinking, or technology, we lessen our burden on the earth.
Fasting is an aid to peace with ourselves—it develops patience, humility, and self-discipline. It can help clarify our purpose and direction in life and prepare us for active engagement in our community and world. At the same time, fasting reminds us that this world is not all there is.
Fasting is an aid to peace with others for it brings us into solidarity with other Christians and other people of faith. It reminds us of those who are hungry and thirsty, but not by choice. It develops compassion for others, it calls us to practice justice and kindness, and reminds us to pray for our neighbors near and far away.
I ended my remarks as I began–with thanks and “Peace be with you.”
There was so much more to the evening than I’ve said here–really you needed to be there to experience it. This, at least, is a little taste, and as always, I value your comments, so please feel free to respond below.